Before we get around to giving the officials that presided over the Steelers’ come-from-ahead loss to the Chargers Sunday night their requisite skewering, it’s important to remember that human error is an element that’s woven inextricably into football’s DNA: players make bad plays or commit dumb penalties, coaches design and implement ineffective game plans, and officials occasionally make incorrect judgement calls. That last one’s worthy of further consideration, because the ambiance of the home viewing experience makes it so easy to criticize officials for throwing bogus flags or not throwing warranted ones. Like, yeah, it’s generally pretty obvious when a fumble is a fumble, but that’s because you, the viewer, are watching the replay on a 4k television transmitting the game-feed—in slow motion, no less—from a EFP camera that’s powerful enough to film blackheads forming on the quarterback’s nose. The human eye unfortunately does not possess such innovative capabilities (not yet, anyway).
With that said, blasting the refs always provides catharsis, especially when their performance is directly attributable to—but not entirely attributable to, this part is critical—to a loss. Sunday night, the officials who oversaw Pittsburgh’s 33-30 painted a vivid mosaic of incompetence. For one, they missed as conspicuous of a false start as you’ll ever see, seen below:
WHO PAID da Refs Sam Tevi CLEARLY OFFSIDE ♂️ Philip Rivers TD should NOT have counted ♂️pic.twitter.com/2jiUN38gez— VERSACEBOYENT (@VersaceBoyEnt2) December 3, 2018
I was at this game, so writing this story is actually the first time I’m seeing a replay of the play in question. My beefy guy took three little shuffle-steps before the ball was even snapped! This is ten times worse than I thought it was. Good grief.
Later, on a 73-yard punt return touchdown by Desmond King, it sure looked like Steelers gunner Brian Allen was blocked in the back, and Joe Haden emphatically believes that he was not offsides on a game-ending field goal that Michael Badgley missed. I thought the block in the back maybe could’ve gone either way—and let’s be real, that touchdown was less the result of a botched penalty than it was customarily bad special teams play by the Steelers—but Haden’s offsides declaration is interesting. I don’t know. You guys/gals can be the judge of that:
Are we sure the Steelers were offsides on the 1st kick? pic.twitter.com/gPCaEK6JWp— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) December 3, 2018
I don’t want to waste too much space opining the particulars of plays that may or may not have been called incorrectly, but, man, that missed false start was brutal. It’s a little absurd to credit Sunday’s outcome to anything more than negligence—there are a great many dark inequities imbuing our world, but the NFL fixing games against the Pittsburgh Steelers is not one of them (and I think we, as an unbiased fanbase, should be able to freely admit that the Steelers have most certainly been beneficiaries of a non-zero number of officiating errors)—but, yeah, the refs really crapped the bed on that one. Here’s to hoping the Steelers get a more discerning crew next week. Stock report!
Stock down: The Steelers human elements
Let’s say that the 46-yard touchdown strike from Philip Rivers to Travis Benjamin was completely beyond Pittsburgh’s control. That’s fine.
What the Steelers could control, however, was their game-plan, which was thoroughly abominable. Keenan Allen—who is easily among the top 10 receivers in the NFL and arguably among the top five—had 14 catches Sunday, largely because the Steelers steadfastly refused to deploy cornerbacks against him. This from Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
And according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, a linebacker was the man closest to Allen on almost half of those 19 targets (nine) — the most a receiver has worked against a linebacker in a game since the service began tracking such metrics in 2016.
This was by design. L.J. Fort, ostensibly a poor man’s Ryan Shazier, played 52 snaps on Sunday—his previous single-game high was 27, and he hadn’t played more than 17 snaps since Week 8—while Jon Bostic, ostensibly a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker, played 11 snaps—Bostic had played at least 30 snaps in every game this season before Sunday. The Steelers very clearly intended to use some combination of Fort and Bud Dupree to shadow Allen for the duration on Sunday’s proceedings.
The matter of why is subject to some conjecture (depending on when this story is published, Mike Tomlin’s weekly press conference may or may not have already yielded an illuminative response). It’s possible that, with Morgan Burnett and Cameron Sutton unavailable, Tomlin took one look at his bench, saw Artie Burns sitting there and thought, “Aww hell, might as well try putting a linebacker on Allen.” Possible, too, is that the decision to put a linebacker on Allen was more about defining Allen’s physical traits than his abilities as a receiver. To be clear, Keenan Allen is an remarkable, multi-talented receiver, but he isn’t particularly speedy, so maybe Tomlin et al. thought that spying him with a fast linebacker could be an effective strategy. Alas, it was not, as Allen had nearly 150 receiving yards, a touchdown, a two-point conversion, and gained 10 first downs.
Stock down: Big Ben
Ben threw a gruesome interception in scoring range and later overthrew Justin Hunter on a play in which Hunter could not possibly have been more wide-open. I deeply appreciate the immense success Ben Roethlisberger has brought to the Steelers and I am very cognizant of the fact that, without him, the Steelers are canonically, like, the Falcons, but Big Ben has this singular ability to blend unconstrained sorcery with woeful inadequacy. One week, he’s zipping pinpoint laserbeam throws to every receiver on the roster and metronomically orchestrating scoring drives and the next he’s behaving like the part of his brain that regulates his object permanence doesn’t exist. He sometimes occupies both extremes during a single game! It sure looked like we were gonna get Good Ben Sunday, as his second passing attempt of the game was a perfectly-placed 46-yard bomb to Antonio Brown, but two drives later he tossed the aforementioned interception and never really settled into any kind of rhythm.
Stock down: Defense. Just all of it.
Statistically, the Steelers have one of the top 10 run defenses in the league. That, coupled with the fact that they held the Chargers to two (2) rushing yards in the first half, should’ve been enough to inspire confidence about their run-stopping prospects in the second half. Alas, it was not. LA’s rushing attack, which gained 83 total yards in the second frame, allowed the Chargers to maintain a well-balanced and highly-efficient offensive identity during the second half, which played no smart part in them scoring 23 unanswered points and, ultimately, winning the game. This is a good time to mention that, in two weeks, the Steelers will face the Saints, whose backfield, composed of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, is the best in the league. Should be very fun!
I think what’s most discouraging about the Steelers defense isn’t their powerlessness against the run or the poor game management, but their stunning and inexplicable inability to force turnovers. On the season, the Steelers have forced only 12 turnovers, which puts them in a five-way tie with a slew of non-playoff teams for 23rd in the league in that category. Creating takeaways can certainly be a useful strategy for masking other defensive deficiencies (the Dolphins and Broncos, for instance, are both among the 10 worst defenses in yards allowed per game but are in the top six in takeaways, which has enabled both squads to potentially make a run at the AFC’s no. 6 seed), so the lack of turnovers being forced by Pittsburgh’s defense is really exacerbating the negative aspects of otherwise mediocre defensive showings.
Also, everyone commenting on Artie Burns being offsides on back-to-back game-ending field goal attempts seems to be forgetting that, earlier in the very same game, Burns was absolutely torched on a two-point conversation by the lumbering, plodding corpse of Antonio Gates. Artie Burns is the answer to “What if Nathan Peterman played cornerback?” I’ve never seen a position player in any sport with a more apt and fitting surname.
At this point, Joe Haden is to the defense what Ben Roethlisberger is to the offense, so Sean Davis, apparently channeling his inner Mike Mitchell, nearly ended the Steelers season by assassinating Haden.
Sean Davis just lit up Joe Hayden. Damn bruh. pic.twitter.com/y25doB6Qth— Lenny Ciccarone (@LennyCiccarone9) December 3, 2018
Thanks to Davis opting to headhunt instead of playing the ball, the Steelers allowed a fluke, game-altering touchdown instead of what could have been a game-sealing interception.
Stock up: Receiving corps
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown are the first Steelers teammates to each record 1,000 yards in a season since Brown and Mike Wallace did so back in 2011. That’s a fun fact.
Also, Antonio Brown looks absolutely unstoppable, which should bode well for the Steelers’ playoff hopes (provided that Ben stops throwing picks and the defense stays off the field).
Playoff hopes: meh
Winning two of these final four games should be enough to get the Steelers into the postseason, whether that’s by way of the AFC North title or the Wild Card. However, the Ravens, utilizing an antiquated but effective game plan that’s run-heavy and designed to keep opposing offenses on the sideline, look unbeatable with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, and suddenly they’re right in the Steelers’ rearview and there’s a whole gaggle of teams, including the Dolphins, Titans, Colts, and Broncos, pining for that no. 6 seed. With games against New England and N’awlins awaiting, Sunday’s upcoming game in Oakland is very frankly something of a must-win. Thankfully, the Steelers have a sterling track record on the road against sub-.500 teams, and they are particularly adept at beating the Raiders. [thumbs up emoji].